- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Let us pause to mark another Clinton first: Bill Clinton is the first ex-president whose handsomely-paid presence ever forced corporate America to issue a sweeping mea culpa an institutional "We're not with him" rather than lose untold numbers of irate customers.

"I fully understand why you are upset that former President Clinton spoke at one of our conferences," Morgan Stanley chairman Philip Purcell wrote, obviously feeling some pain of his own, in an e-mail zapped last week to some undisclosed number of his five million customers. "We clearly made a mistake."

That's one word for the brouhaha Morgan Stanley brought upon itself for having chosen to be first in line to pony up between $100,000 and $150,000 for Bill Clinton to address a "high yield" (a.k.a. junk bond) conference in sunny Boca Raton, Florida. The company admits to having received hundreds of complaints over Mr. Clinton's appearance, although Mr. Purcell's dramatic statement would seem to indicate that the company fears an even greater impact.

"We should have thought twice before the speaking invitation was extended," Mr. Purcell's unusual message continued. "Our failure to do so was particularly unfortunate in light of Mr. Clinton's actions in leaving the White House." As for Mr. Clinton's actions before leaving the White House, Mr. Purcell referred to them, too: "We should have been far more sensitive to the strong feelings of our clients over Mr. Clinton's personal behavior as president."

Mr. Purcell explained his company's blunder this way: "The decision did not receive the proper review within the firm," he wrote. One wonders what a "proper review" might have constituted a databank search to find out whether Mr. Clinton had ever been impeached? A blue ribbon panel analysis of the Starr Report? The LaBella Report? Or maybe the White House Ushers Office tally on missing towels?

In fairness to Mr. Purcell, the crack-up of the Clintons since clambering down from the pedestal of White House power has taken everyone by surprise for its speed and violence, both of which have endowed it with an almost mythological, practically biblical intensity. Once upon a time, when the presidential seal was his own, Mr. Clinton's power and his brazen will to exercise it were a formidable shield that effectively neutralized his opponents. Now that his claim to that seal is reduced to a seal-emblazoned card table "mistakenly" removed to the Clinton home in Chappaqua, and what remains of the shield is the brazenness, Bill Clinton is left to confront a danger he hasn't had to encounter for a long time: himself. Or, more specifically, the consequences of his actions not in a legal sense, of course, but in a highly personal one.

The outcry over Mr. Clinton, whether for his presidency or his post-presidency, has reached a historic crescendo with his first speaking engagement. (Interestingly enough, the hullabaloo didn't take into account Mr. Clinton's insult-to-injury golf outing the following day, noted by the New York Post's Page Six, at the Indian Creek Country Club, a club which Talk magazine will report next month follows racially and religiously "restricted" membership policies.) The uproar calls into question whether Mr. Clinton will have as financially rewarding a post-presidential speaking career as he has so obviously planned. More important, though, it reveals once and for all that reputations that rest on spin and poll numbers have the shelf life of alfalfa sprouts. Without constant care and replenishment, they quickly become damaged goods.

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